Once the world was new
Our bodies felt the morning dew
That greets the brand new day
We couldn't tear ourselves away
I wonder if you care
I wonder if you still remember...
The Moody Blues, "Your Wildest Dreams"
Linda, a 53-year-old psychotherapy patient, was talking with me about a recent New Yo
rk Times article about the rising numbers of "Post50" midlifers who are divorcing. That, despite other data that the overall divorce rate has dropped somewhat, to around 40 percent. Linda was worried. She and her husband had been experiencing more conflict, lately, especially since their two children had finished college and were off on their own. She said it felt like they were on different wavelengths about nearly everything - sex, money, lifestyle. "Sometimes I think we're 'on the brink'..." Linda said, not wanting to use the "D" word. "Maybe we'd both be happier going separate ways. Life is short..."
Linda is prone to anxiety, and has a lot on her plate with in her career as a public relations executive. But given the rising numbers of midlife divorce, marital conflict is an understandable concern. (Disclosure: I'm a midlife baby boomer; been there, done that.) There are several likely reasons for this trend, but I think there's a particular dilemma that may remain under the radar. It's that many midlife baby boomers are caught between feelings of longing for a relationship ideal that they think might be real but unfulfilled; and a pull towards settling for what they have, with all it's imperfections and disappointments. This is a huge conflict. It's worth understanding what it reflects, in order to deal with it in a healthy way; especially in the context of transformations occurring in people's emotional and sexual relationships today.
Linda and her husband know of couples who had announced they were getting divorced, often to the surprise of many: "They seemed perfectly fine; no hint of trouble." They knew of more than one couple in which one partner said, "I just felt the need to experience more of my own life, at this point."
Linda wondered, were she and her husband mismatched to begin with and just didn't realize it, back in their 20s? Had they grown in such different directions that they no longer wanted or cared about having a life together in their years ahead? Or had their work become their true "lover" rather than each other?"
Good questions for any long-term couple. But what is it that's made baby boomers more prone -- or receptive -- to divorce? There are several plausible reasons. For example, the sociologist Pepper Schwartz has pointed out that many, in their youth, "... pushed against the restrictive conventions of social life their parents more or less had accepted." They "experienced decades of relationship innovation, creating cultural confusion about whether marriage was necessary, and what made an excellent -- or even adequate -- marriage."
Looking more closely, these experiences affected boomers in different ways, with different outcomes that nevertheless converged in marital conflict. That is, the majority of baby boomers didn't participate in or even identify very much with the women's movement, the civil rights and anti-war movements; nor embraced the positive ideals of the 60s, like love, peace, tolerance and authenticity. Many were more aligned with the older values and attitudes about careers, materialism and traditional marriage, those of the "Mad Men" generation.
But many others were, in fact, inspired by those ideals and aspirations for personal and social change, especially about their love relationships. Over time, the impact of the 60s social movements became visible in the rise of midlife marriage conflicts and increasing divorce in both segments of baby boomers.
For example, those more aligned with traditional views of marriage and embraced conventional cultural values were nevertheless enticed by the explosion of change they saw all around them -- music, sexuality, rejection of traditional authority; of following a "program" for adulthood. They felt the allure of greater personal freedom and expression. These experiences created many conflicts, especially for marriages that were going south. And as those boomers became midlife adults, some chose affairs as an alternative to painful divorce. And they struggled with the psychological constraints of the career and life paths they had followed.
But even those baby boomers who clearly identified with 60s values of became stymied about how to incorporate them into their lives and relationships. Those ideals were undercut and eroded by the powerful influence of their family relationships. And, by relentless social conditioning, especially in the form of a still-prevailing adolescent model of love. That, in turn, sullied the belief in and desire for ever finding a true "soul mate."
By the time baby boomers became midlife adults in the thick of long-term marriages, many find themselves caught between longing for finding or re-creating a lost ideal in their relationship; and simply settling for what they have at this point, because it looks lie the most realistic and practical.
Such conflict was inevitable: Much of their youthful attraction to the values of love, authenticity and trust was a reaction against the post-WWII rising middle class comfort and stability, in which they were raised. It struck some as too smothering and programmed. Also, many also grew up with considerable dysfunction and pathology in their families, including indifference by upwardly striving parents, neglect or outright abuse.
Young baby boomers didn't have sufficient understanding of the lager culture's social forces that impinged on them; they couldn't. Moreover, they hadn't developed enough self-awareness to apply the 60s ideals to their own personal lives. So, young baby boomers tended to recreate versions of their parents' relationships, while longing for what they had hoped for and envisioned. They couldn't grapple successfully with powerful social-cultural forces that pulled them towards conventional values and behavior in career goals, relationships -- and then experienced conflict with them. They couldn't enact values like love, tolerance, peace, or equality -- in their own lives or society.
I've heard many baby boomer midlifers question in their therapy sessions whether they had settled for less in their marriage because of what they didn't know about themselves or their partners. Or, that the fear of being single led them to settle for less, as recent research has, in fact, demonstrated. Moreover, another study found that people who harbored doubts about marrying the person they did hitch up with are more likely to divorce. They may identify with some lyrics from a Talking Heads song,
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife.
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
Divorce may become an option when striving to live more authentically in the remaining time you have; especially when you think that's no longer possible in your relationship. Divorce may be a semi-conscious effort to solve the dilemma longing for something more alive, passionate, vital and connected with a partner; or settling for what you do have, with the limitations and frustrations of your current marriage. Interestingly, though, 60 percent of divorced people end up with new partners in positive relationships.
Others do want to reclaim what's faded from their relationship. Restoring emotional, sexual and spiritual intimacy isn't easy. One necessary part is becoming transparent and exposed to each other, in all the ways that long-term couples tend to cover up. What can help is knowing that reconnecting with past feelings and hopes can enhance the possibility of change in the future. Recent research found that focusing on nostalgia - positive memories from the past - leads to a more optimistic view of the future; of what may be possible.
Relationships are evolving. Baby boomers' children are accustomed to varieties of relationships that their midlife parental generation opened the door to, somewhat: LGBT relationships; interracial relationships; permanent cohabitation rather than marriage, even after having children; polyamory; and even a movement to decriminalize polygamy. Capacity for change is important in life, but especially crucial today as the definition of love relationships as well as families steadily evolve.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.
One of my favorite romantic scenes in a motion picture happened when Tom Hanks and his co-star,
Kyra Sedgwick said it all when she told Good Housekeeping recently (via People) of her husband, Kevin Bacon: "He is so honorable. He is so ethically true. He has high moral standards, and he doesn't lie and he doesn't cheat -- and I find that sexy! ... I don't know how he does it, but he always makes me feel like I'm the most beautiful woman in the room -- the only girl in the room." We have a feeling Kevin thinks his wife is the best thing that's ever happened to him, too. We hope they enjoy their 25th anniversary on September 4!
ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer has kept husband, comedy legend Mike Nichols, informed on international news and in return, her husband obviously knows how to work her funny bone. Nichols told Vanity Fair in a recent interview that he found the love of his life with Diane, his fourth wife. They celebrate 25 years on April 29, and we're sure the next 25 years will just breeze by for these two. May you both laugh your way to that Golden Anniversary!
Michael J. Fox and his future wife, actress Tracy Pollan, first met each other on the set of Family Ties, where she portrayed Ellen Reed. Who will ever forget that romantic dance they shared to the tune of "At This Moment"? Obviously every moment they've shared together for the past 25 years has been precious. The couple, who were married on July 16, 1988, have four children. Now that's some powerful family ties!
These two lovebirds have survived many cold winters way up there in Alaska in addition to the political heat they endured when the first female Governor of Alaska decided to take a Big Gulp and run for Vice President of the United States. Politics aside, we do admire them for taking the high road in their family life, raising the bar when it comes to celebrating their precious special-needs son and keeping their family together given the glass house they've lived in for a few years. Happy 25th Anniversary! May you celebrate many more.
British model Twiggy, who made a fashion statement with her short cropped hairstyle, became a household name in the mid '60s when she landed on high-profile magazine covers including Vogue and Newsweek, breaking out as one of the first teenage supermodels. Her first marriage ended with the sudden death of her husband due to a heart attack. She married second husband Leigh Lawson in 1988; the couple will have been happily married for 25 years this year!
Tony Award winner, Patti LuPone, who played Lady Bird Johnson in the TV movie, LBJ: The Early Years, met cameraman Matthew Johnson on set in 1987. The two were married on December 12, 1988 on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Best wishes go out to the Evita actress and her husband!
Wayne Rogers, who is best known for playing Trapper John McIntyre on the CBS television series M*A*S*H, was married for 23 years to his first wife. He's on a roll with second wife Amy Hirsh Rogers, married for 25 years and counting. We're more shocked that Rogers turns 80 this year! What? Not possible!
Corbin Bernsen may have played the skillful divorce attorney Arnold Becker on the NBC drama series L.A. Law, but he obviously doesn't need to consult a real divorce expert when it comes to his own marriage. The actor has been happily wed to British actress Amanda Pays since 1988. The delightful couple have four children and 8,000 snow globes. (Would we make that up?)
Paul Reiser delivered one of the funniest ad libs of all time on a sitcom (Mad About You). Walking into his living room, his dog was on the couch licking his private parts, Reiser looked over at him and said, "If I could do that, I wouldn't need a wife." Ta-dum! In his personal life, the actor's wife has been doing something right. He and Paula Ravets celebrate 25 years of marital bliss this year.
Supermodel Kathy Ireland, who Forbes magazine "nicknamed 'Supermogul' for her tremendous success as a designer and entrepreneur," has been married half of her life. At 50, she has logged 25 years of marriage to husband Dr. Greg Olsen, an ER surgeon and commercial fisherman. The couple have three children.
Former professional hockey player Wayne Gretzky, who played for 20 seasons in the National Hockey League, married actress Janet Jones on July 17, 1988 in a ceremony so grand the Canadian press called it "The Royal Wedding."
Ah, Potsie, we couldn't be more thrilled that you and your lovely wife have been creating your own Happy Days for the past 25 years. Williams "lives in Malibu, CA with his wife Jackie Gerken (a television producer and a former vice president of production for Dino De Laurentiis) and his daughter Hannah Lily who was born in 1989. Trivia: He is divorced from first wife Lorrie Mahaffey, who played his girlfriend Jennifer on Happy Days.
Two-time Tony award winning Broadway actress and former SNL alum, Christine Ebersole, has been married twice. After her five-year union with actor Peter Bergman went south (1976 - 1981), she regrouped and married Bill Moloney in 1988. Ebersole, who describes her family as the "new normal," adopted three children with her husband: "Mae-Mae is from China, Aron is Chinese and Filipino and Elijah is African-American," told the Trentonian newspaper.
Actor Treat Williams met Pam Van Sant while she was waitressing in a New York restaurant. We don't know what he ordered, but the food must have been really good. Twenty-five years and two children later, we're guessing they take turns in the kitchen now. Congrats to these two who are living the good life and most likely keep their fast food to a minimum.
We doubt that 30 million people watched General Hospital's Genie Francis marry her real-life husband, actor/director Jonathan Frankes on May 28, 1988. Anthony Geary and Genie Francis -- aka Luke and Laura -- pulled in huge numbers when they wed on the popular soap opera, which is celebrating 50 years on the air this year. Congratulations to the Emmy winner and her husband for making their own fairytale come true.
There may have been a "bridge over troubled water" in singer Art Garfunkel's first marriage (he claimed his first marriage was turbulent and ended bitterly), but he hit pay dirt with second wife Kim Cermak. Garfunkel met former model Kathryn "Kim" Cermak while filming the 1986 film Good to Go. They married on September 18, 1988 and have two children. Here's to you, Mrs. Garfunkel!
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